Therefore, what I am doing is lodging this as a holding post – thus opening up the forum for comment – while I read the documents and associated press coverage, whence I will write during the course of the day one of my online essays, taking account of comments here and on facebook.
The first thing to take from this report, though, is that the inquiry – on which the report is based – was (according to the summary on pg 3) “triggered by the Prime Minister’s veto of EU Treaty change at the December 2011 meeting of the European Council”. The Committee “felt that the episode might mark a defining moment in the UK’s EU policy and place in the EU”.
However, as readers of this blog know, the Prime Minister did not veto any EU Treaty change, and especially not at the 2011 European Council. There was no treaty to veto, and there had been no IGC convened, at which a veto could have been exercised.
Although this error is not fatal to the inquiry – the report is intended to inform the public debate on the UK’s EU policy in coming years – it does go to the assessment of the knowledge and competence of the Committee, and thus the value of their report. And when the MPs, from the very start, get something so fundamentally wrong, one is entitled to reserve judgement as to the whether their offerings are worth anything at all.
Sticking with the summary (pg 3), the immediate reservations are quickly confirmed, when one sees the Committee “commend the Prime Minister for launching an ambitious agenda for EU reform”. Unless someone knows different, it is the case that Mr Cameron has been remarkably reticent about providing any detail of his “agenda”, in which context it is very difficult – if not impossible – to ascertain whether it is “ambitious”.
Thus, while the MPs go on to assert that there some support for some of Mr Cameron’s reform ideas around the EU, and there is significant scope for further progress on some of them, they seem to contradict their own statement by acknowledging that the Prime Minister “has not spelled out in any detail the content of the ‘new settlement’ he might seek”.
Very quickly, therefore, do we get to a – if not “the” – bottom line, where the Committee concludes that it is “impossible to assess” the likelihood of Mr Cameron securing the kind of “new settlement” for the UK in the EU that he might seek.
If we stop there, for a moment, and savour the implications of what has been said, we have to accept that the situation is such that we have no knowledge of what settlement Mr Cameron actually wants, and it is impossible to assess whether he can obtain it.
Against that, it is pretty reasonable for the MPs to conclude that “proposals for pan-EU reforms are likely to find a more favourable reception than requests for further ‘special treatment’ for the UK”.
As a general principle, this either comes from the Janet & John book on negotiating EU treaties – obviously intended for FCO mandarins – or it might come from the “EU for dummies” volume.
Having obviously read the accompanying volume (“EU for complete idiots”), the MPs then confess to being “sceptical” that other Member States would renegotiate existing EU law so as to allow the UK alone to reduce its degree of integration, particularly where this could be seen as undermining the integrity of the Single Market”.
If it was not for the fact that the Prime Minister has asserted otherwise, we would wonder why such a basic point should be included. But, as a counter to prime ministerial propaganda, it is very helpful, especially when the MPs say:
And here, the Committee goes badly awry. It agrees with the Government that the current arrangements for relations with the Single Market and the EU that are maintained by Norway or Switzerland would not be appropriate for the UK if it were to leave the EU. If it is in the UK’s interest to remain in the Single Market, the MPs say, the UK should either remain in the EU, or launch an effort for radical institutional change in Europe to give decision-making rights in the Single Market to all its participating states.
The reasons why this is so wrong are partly rehearsed here, in that the MPs, like the Government, are falling onto the trap (as so many do) of believing that decision-making relating to the Single Market is necessarily conducted at EU level. As we are well aware, much of the standards-setting which comprises the Single Market acquis originates at regional or global level, negotiated upstream of the EU.
Secondly, the MPs seem to be working on the assumption that the Norwegian and Swiss models are the same – when they are not. There are very significant differences between the two and the arguments against one would not necessarily apply to the other.
Thirdly, the MPs do not seem to have considered the merits of either option as an interim solution, renegotiable at a later stage. Nor do they recognise that, if the UK joined EFTA, this would change the dynamics and balance of the organisation, facilitating precisely the “radical institutional change” that the Committee argues is desirable.
Once you go wrong, however, there is a tendency to stay wrong. “Inside the EU, in the face of more far-reaching Eurozone integration”, the Committee says, “it could be difficult for the UK and other non-Eurozone Member States to preserve their capacity to shape decisions affecting the Single Market”.
The point here, of course, is that, since so much of the standards setting occurs outside the EU, the UK might be better placed to shape decisions outside the EU, better indeed than if it remained a member. And if that is the case, then – contrary to the Committee’s assertions. the Government has not correctly identified risks, and its strategy of seeking to mitigate it by protecting the rights of non-Eurozone states is ultimately flawed.
In concluding its summary, though, the Committee tells us that arguments about the extent of UK influence in the EU, and how it might best be maintained and strengthened, “ran throughout our inquiry”. Indeed that is the case, and we have so far read some, but not all of the evidence.
As is so often the case with Select Committees, though, the list of witnesses too narrowly cast, and to a very great extent partisan, or limited in scope. The Committee thus came to it conclusions manifestly through having a limited grasp of the fundamentals of EU politics and procedures, and by selecting witnesses (especially those who gave oral evidence) who would give them the answers they wanted to hear, or which would not be challenging to them.
This then allows a conclusion that the Government’s tone, language and overall approach can have a major impact in sustaining UK influence in the EU – a not untoward finding. But it then tells the Government that it should “frame its approach and language in pan-EU rather than UK only terms, and should remain constructive, positive and engaged”.
With the former part of that sentence, we would most profoundly disagree. It is no part of the national interest that we should subsume the British interest for the sake of facilitating EU “reforms” that are agreeable to all the other member states. If the UK cannot by any means negotiate a position which the UK would argue is necessary – which is the conclusion of the committee – then the real option is to negotiate our complete withdrawal, and to develop an entirely new relationship.
That concludes the essay for now. I will return to the themes raised, in a new post, when I have had a chance to look more deeply at the evidence.